by Gary Yamasaki Third and five, on the Redskins 27. . .Wilson is in the shotgun. . .he takes the snap and hands off to Lynch trying the left side. . .he cuts to the right and evades a tackle. . .he has the first down. . .he gets to the outside. . .crosses the 15. . .the 10, with Wilson in front of him. . .Wilson throws a block. . .Lynch is into the end zone. . .touchdown! With the touchdown, the Seahawks took their first lead of the game, a lead they would not relinquish as they went on to win their first road playoff game in what seems like an eternity.
At first glance, this call of the play appears totally unremarkable—perhaps a little more detailed than you’d hear while watching the game. . .more in line with the detail given in radio coverage of the play—but otherwise, nothing out of the ordinary. However, a closer look at the call reveals it actually constitutes an unusual way of reporting on an event.
Compare that to the following report of the play: “. . .Wilson was in the shotgun. . .he took the snap and handed off to Lynch trying the left side. . .he cut to the right and evaded a tackle. . . .” This is what you are more likely to hear around the water cooler on Monday morning or in the sports news on the radio, or what you would read in a blog or a newspaper article on the game. A report of an event is almost always made after the fact, when the event is a thing of the past; therefore, it is reported using past-tense verbs, as reflected in our second call of the play. To put it in point-of-view terms, the audience is being led to experience the event from a vantage point past the end of the time frame of the event, thus viewing it as an event in the past, and this relates to the temporal plane of point of view.
This use of past-tense verbs in retrospective reporting is the default practice for narration in the narratives of the New Testament (tense in Hebrew does not carry the same “time” sense). However, narration in New Testament narratives does occasionally slip into the use of present-tense verbs even when relating events that are in the past—what is known as the “historical present.”
English translations generally ignore this shift, simply translating such historical presents as if they were past-tense verbs, thus hiding from the readers the fact present-tense verbs are being used. This, however, is lamentable, for it deprives the readers of the impact intended by the use of this storytelling device.
When the historical present is used, the readers are taken from a temporal vantage point subsequent to the end of the time frame of the event, and are shifted to a vantage point contemporaneous with that of the characters involved in the event, that is, a position in the characters’ “present.” To put it another way, they are taken from a position of distance from the characters, and are placed in a position of proximity, a position from which the action feels much more immediate.
This difference is easy to demonstrate. Re-read the 3rd-paragraph account of the Seahawks touchdown, and follow that with a re-read of the 1st-paragraph account. The difference should be palpable. The 1st-paragraph account should feel more vivid, more “as if you are there.” And this is because the present-tense verbs function to do exactly that. . .take you from a position past the end of the game and place you right in the midst of the action.
So, we have here another manifestation of a distinction introduced earlier, that is, the distinction between an “objective,” and a “subjective,” experience of a story. An account of an event rendered merely with past-tense verbs functions to distance the readers from the action, thus rendering them mere objective observers. However, an account rendered with present-tense verbs moves the readers into a position of proximity, resulting in a subjective “as if you are there” experience.